Dead Ends--#1--Rose Wilder Lane
When I first began writing about Berta and Elmer Hader, I had no idea of how to write a biography. I asked others who had tackled this type of writing for advice. My son, historian Harold Cook, suggested noting every person who crossed their paths and making a file card for each. Besides family and neighbors, they had an amazing group of friends who often went on to major achievements. I used my computer to keep track of the key names and words on file cards as I came across them. They piled up. Harold’s advice was right on. But many references turned out to be just dead ends.
Berta moved several times as a child, while her widowed mother, Addie, worked as a social worker to support her two children—not easy in the late 1800s. Addie may have helped Berta learn social skills, as they moved from Mexico to Texas, Kansas City to Suffern, New York. Elmer had a far more stable childhood, but his parents also had to learn to adapt to new people and places. His father worked on the railroad, following it across the United States to San Francisco. His Swedish born mother would have learned how to adapt to new places and new people, as she collected recipes from the other immigrant women she met along the way.
When Berta took over Eva Shepherd’s fashion illustrating business in 1915, she also did some freelance work for the San Francisco Bulletin. There she met two of their lifelong friends: Bessie Beatty, who was head of the women’s pages, and journalist Rose Wilder Lane.
Rose was beginning to regret her marriage to Gillette Lane—a man who had big ideas about making money, but who relied on Rose’s salary for support. The Lanes lived in the same apartment house as Berta—Rose’s mother Laura referred to Berta as the “little artist girl who lives in the basement.” When Rose left Gillette, the two women moved to tiny affordable studios on Telegraph Hill, where they became friends with more young artists and writers. As I found more about each friend, my biography cards began to fill up.
World War I scattered the group. Bessie Beatty was sent by the Bulletin to cover the Kerensky Revolution in Russia. Rose signed up with the Red Cross and was sent to Europe, and Berta went to New York City to wait for Elmer’s return. Later, after her Russian assignment, Bessie became editor of McCall’s magazine and hired Berta to work for her. After the war was over Rose moved to New York City and roomed with Berta in an unheated, run-down, old house--now the much-improved and heated Jones Street Guest House. After Elmer and Berta married, Rose’s restlessness returned and she eventually returned to Europe and Albania—a country that fascinated her.
I found a reference to a letter Rose wrote to her parents saying she received a proposal of marriage from Bey Ahmet Zogu, who later became King Zog of Albania. A letter to Berta from their mutual friend Jane Barrow referred to the proposal and said Rose had asked Berta to paint a miniature portrait of King Zog while he was in New York City. I wondered if I could find it. So I googled King Zog to see when he’d been in New York. There were no such references. Other Lane biographers implied it would have been impossible for his family to allow such a marriage.
Still hopeful, I wrote to the Hoover Presidential Library, where Lane's papers are housed in their archives. They kindly sent me a copy of the six-page, single spaced letter she sent to her parents. In the letter she refers to “my Bey” as a diplomat in the Albanian government. It is full of details about her “proposal from a Prince” whose name she "could not mention because mail is being censored in Italy.” They were both in the town of Tirana when it was suddenly attacked by one of the mountain tribes. “Bullets, bullets everywhere and not an idea of why.” The next day her Bey sought out Rose in her Red Cross office, and proposed marriage. First he told Rose that her prematurely white hair "looked marvelous in the moonlight.” He then asked if her heart was free. "Quite, I said, and very fond of freedom. At that, the lid of Tirana blew off…and a bullet came in and took a lot of plaster off the wall behind us but we didn’t notice it much.”
She goes on about the attacks, and the history and ends the letter by saying “there is no use asking you whether or not you want an Albanian Bey for a son-in-law, as I shall decide it one way or another…I have not the least notion what a Moslem wedding ceremony is like.”
Imagine that letter arriving at Almanzo and Laura’s house in Mansfield, Missouri! Full of references to a “Bey.” Of course the presumption was it was King Zog of Albania. The story went through the small town, and probably all her friends as an example of small town girl makes good.
I loved the letter. Rose wrote vividly. Reluctantly, I left it out of my biography because the engagement never happened, nor did Berta ever paint a miniature portrait of King Zog.